Over the summer, in the midst of the drama with my father’s failing health and faster-failing ability to censor himself, we had a true Sandwich Generation moment. My daughter Sophie, a swimmer who might be expected to experience less head trauma than her friends playing hockey or soccer, suffered a concussion. (Weather bitterness note: it was the end of July and a windy and cold morning; it’s New England, so there isn’t really a reliable season when you can guarantee a warm day.) The chilly wind was blowing the backstroke flags toward the wall, which caused Sophie to miscount her strokes at the finish. Her friend in the next lane had the same problem. However, this friend had her hair underneath her cap in a bun, which protected her when she came in a half-stroke sooner than expected and also bonked her head on the wall.
It’s the same race and pool that are in the picture actually; if I had known what was about to happen, I might have jumped in or tried to cushion the blow against the wall somehow. I know as the parent of a teenager that you are not supposed to protect them from all of life’s hardships. This one would have been an exception though.
The sound from the impact carried across the pool. When Sophie came over shortly afterward and told me that she couldn’t really remember the race, we knew what had happened.
This was a week before summer swim championships and the day we were supposed to leave for Italy. Naively we hoped that it would mild enough to clear before then. Not so. Here I am writing a blog post in the middle of October and it still with her, and with us.
Recovery from a concussion is an agonizing, slow and inconsistent process. It does not move in straight line. And it affects everything. Sophie’s in particular affects her vision and balance. It is hard to focus and hard to see perspectives shift. Concentration is a challenge. Nothing is obviously wrong with you physically; when I used to wear a cast, people knew my arm was broken. Sophie has no such physical manifestation, only a set of things she cannot do for fear of exacerbating the problem.
She is doing physical therapy to help her re-acclimate to the basics. Balance exercises standing in the pool. She lifts one leg, drops the other, first ten times with difficulty, then fifteen times with ease, then fifteen times twice, and so on. Peripheral vision exercises where looks at an object and rotates her head. Sometimes PT in the morning tires her out so much that by mid-day, she is barely hanging on.
A broken arm comes with a prescribed recovery time. A concussion comes with well-meaning guesses. You can take it easy and favor your healthy arm while the damaged one recovers. I’ve done it a few times myself and became a pretty accomplished one-handed stick shift driver, even in San Francisco which combines otherworldly hills with perpetually angry pedestrians who stare disapprovingly from the level ground of the crosswalk you are trying to reach to save your clutch.
With your brain, you cannot do it. It is one day at a time. And I know exactly how she feels.
It is perhaps unfair to compare the trauma of loss and my intense summer to the physical brain trauma from a concussion. I can stand the light, watch television, get through a TV show or a book, stare a screen long enough to bang out a blog post. From that perspective, I have it easy. On the other hand, she almost certainly will recover back to her old state and at age 14, surpass it. I know I cannot go back. The state I once occupied isn’t there anymore. I have to navigate somewhere new.
It is a slow and tortuous process, one in which the world is not slowing down to wait for me. Therapy is not a straight line. Sometimes it energizes me and I can feel progress, but most times, I leave shaking my head wondering how I am going to face the rest of my day. Sometimes I can’t but do anyway. Just like Sophie. Her positive attitude and sense of humor about the situation is an inspiration for days where I can’t find either.
Not often does your teenage daughter tell you something and you really, really get it. Sometimes we play cards together, and after a few games she has to stop because her brain hurts. Sometimes while we play I flash back to playing with my mother at our kitchen table and the cups of coffee we would share early in the morning. It is a reaction not so different from hers. So this time I think I do.
I hope she gets back to where she’s going, and I’m sure she will. I also hope she gets back there before I do. That feeling is part of being a parent, an element dearer to me now that I am no longer a son.